Vocational learning has come a long way since the 1980s. Neil Merrick finds out what colleges can offer pupils that can be hard to find in schools
It is more than 20 years since secondary school pupils were first invited to get a fuller taste of vocational learning in further education colleges.
Staff who were involved in the technical and vocational education initiative during the 1980s could scarcely have envisaged the vast range of programmes on offer today - or the complexities of organising regular college classes for 14 to 16-year-olds.
Not only must schools and colleges ensure teenagers turn up in the right place at the right time, but teachers in both institutions need to know that they are following an appropriate curriculum and are covered if anything goes wrong.
Guidance drawn up three years ago by the Learning and Skills Council and the Association of Colleges suggests colleges sign a partnership agreement with each school or, in the case of pupils who have been permanently excluded, the local authority. Schools should carry out a risk assessment of the college before it sends pupils there and gain the consent of parents.
John Ratcliff, 14- 19 programme manager at the LSC, believes schemes are generally well managed, especially since the Government's increased flexibility programme set guidelines for schools and colleges to follow when it was introduced in 2002. "Colleges are building up significant expertise in dealing with 14 to 16 year-olds," he says.
The first thing colleges need to know is which subjects teenagers want to study. Hastings College of Arts and Technology begins its enrolment process in January - nine months before pupils attend the college on a part-time basis. An open evening for Year 9 pupils normally takes place in March, after which they choose from 11 vocational options. In May, they attend a one-to-one interview accompanied by a parent. They are then given a taste of their three preferred subjects before the summer holidays. They must make their final choice by September.
Later this year, Hastings is introducing a new vocational curriculum that will offer higher-level programmes. Until now, it has aimed its 14-16 options at pupils with the greatest need who generally require level 1 courses (equivalent to GCSED-G).
Corrine Duly, the college's foundation programme manager, says it is difficult to forecast how a pupil is going to respond to their new learning environment - even though, in most cases, they will not be out of school for more than one day per week. "They can have had trouble with their curriculum in Year 9, but college may be the best thing for them," she says.
Most colleges arrange induction sessions so that pupils know what is expected of them in a more adult environment. But it is not just youngsters who have been forced to adapt. During many early 14-16 programmes, college staff complained that they were not qualified to teach younger students and that they were being thrown in the deep end without adequate training or support.
David Smith, acting executive director at Sussex LSC, says it acts as a broker between schools and colleges by providing an opportunity for them to discuss issues such as pupils' behaviour and the range of programmes on offer. Sussex runs three 14-19 partnerships that also include local authorities and the Connexions service.
City of Bristol college enrols up to 1,000 14 to 16-year-olds each year from about 30 schools. Programmes are organised through consortium groups.
"The idea is to widen the curriculum on offer to each school, but it can be complicated to timetable," says curriculum manager John Ruderman. Most staff who teach younger students were recruited specifically for 14-16 programmes. Regular meetings are held with clusters of schools across the city, but schools also appoint a liaison officer who keeps in week-to-week contact with Mr Ruderman.
Many schools send a teacher or learning assistant to the college on the day their pupils attend but, says Mr Ruderman, pupils generally mix well with college students and there are few behavioural problems: "We are getting to the point where schools select more carefully. We are not seen as a babysitting service."
With schools demanding higher-level vocational courses, organisation is likely to become even greater from next year. Brian Rees-Oliver, head of vocational studies at Hartcliffe school, Bristol, normally starts talking to Mr Ruderman from April onwards so that the school has more hope of getting the timetable slots it wants. The school, which sends about 40 pupils to City of Bristol each year, relies on pupils to make their own way to the college on Wednesday and Friday mornings.
Ioan Morgan, Warwickshire college principal, believes one of the reasons for the success of its 14-16 scheme is that teenagers feel as if they are college students even though most of them remain on the school roll. The college takes more than 1,000 pupils from 15 schools, ranging from under-16s who have been excluded to more gifted pupils who enjoy the challenge of learning new subjects in a different atmosphere. "It's important to have a full academic mix," he says.
During their days in college, the pupils follow a similar timetable to full-time students. When the college opened a new technology centre on a science park in Leamington Spa, it faced a tricky decision over whether to allow the under-16s to use it. But Mr Morgan is pleased it decided to open the centre to pupils: "They have integrated well and responded to an adult environment. We have a totally integrated model that allows them to play a full part in college life."
A report last year from the National Foundation for Education Research on the 14-19 programme highlighted the cost of colleges. Schools only contribute about 20 per cent of the costs and, while further money is available under the increased flexibility programme, colleges claim it is nowhere near sufficient. The 72 colleges that produced data for the Learning and Skills Development Agency reported a total deficit of about pound;33 million (about Pounds 450,000 per college) and just four showed a surplus. Across the whole sector, the report estimated that colleges subsidise schools by as much as pound;100m per year.
Colleges may typically charge schools pound;5 per child per hour or, in the case of Oldham college (see above) negotiate an annual fee. Susan Hayday, curriculum manager at the Association of Colleges, says there is a limit to the extent colleges can subsidise even the most worthwhile schemes: "Some 14 to 19 partnerships have found it difficult to sustain provision where schools were required to put in their own funding."
David Smith points out there are obvious benefits to colleges in attracting youngsters before they are 16 if it later helps to boost staying-on rates.
"It's an investment in their future," he says. "The increased flexibility programme has allowed colleges to see first-hand the level at which 14 to 16-year-olds are operating so they can work out a different kind of curriculum for students beyond 16."
Nevertheless, there is a strong argument that schools should make a reasonable contribution. Some of the grant paid to schools by the Department for Education and Skills, he adds, is meant to cover enhanced vocational learning for key stage 4 pupils.
John Ratcliff agrees the process of collaboration itself generates costs, and says the LSC is talking to the DfES about whether this can be met from mainstream funding: "Rather than funding determine what the learner gets, the funding must support the learner and go through the most appropriate channel. We don't want a situation where schools find there are funding barriers to what they want to do."